Are board games sexist?

I was prompted to write this article as a result of designing my own game, and being challenged about my own sub-conscious bias by friends who were helping with the play testing. My game involves collecting sets of tube stations, and I had some wild cards denoted by tube drivers. My friends commented that all the drivers were white and male (like me), and that therefore they didn’t reflect the diversity of actual tube drivers in London.

This particular set of friends were also all 20 years younger than me, and I wondered whether part of my bias was age-related. I played board and card games growing up as a child so wondered to what extent those games (or any games) reflect the society at that time, and therefore reinforce that society’s bias.

Given my conceptions and biases about gender roles are likely to have been shaped by the society that I grew up in, are the types of games that I played as a child likely to have perpetuated those biases. One of these was Happy Families, where you attempt to collect sets of cards from the same family. The families were always defined by the man’s job, such as Mr Tape the Tailor, and the women were defined as being the wife of… rather than being allowed to have their own independent job. Clearly this is seen as sexist in today’s society, and could lend support to my theory that games like this reinforced any biases I might have. Except that Happy Families is alive and well to this day and is ranked at #243 in Toys & Games>Games>Card Games on

img_1860So how do modern board games compare in terms of their gender biases? I have done some analysis of the games that I own to try to find out.


img_1851I have the base Pandemic game and the On The Brink expansion. There are 13 different role cards with 6 women, 7 men. Given that there is a scientific theme to Pandemic, and women are generally under-represented in scientific occupations (In the current UK labour market 13% of the workforce in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics occupations are women), Pandemic is less biased than our current society. (Source: The Guardian)



img_1852There are 21 different architects in Quadropolis, of which 10 are women and 11 are men (one is an older man, so some acknowledgement of older people). In 2013, 22% of registered architects in the UK were women (source:, so Quadropolis has a higher proportion of female architects than there are in the profession in the UK.

Dead of Winter

img_1853There are 30 survivors in the Dead of Winter base game, 17 men, 12 women and a dog. I don’t have any official statistics on the gender distribution of the survivors of a zombie outbreak, so it’s not possible to tell whether the Dead of Winter roles accurately reflect society, although women are under-represented.

Dead of Winter offers us an alternative way to measure possible gender bias in that unlike the previously analysed games, characters have different strengths on three character traits – their ability to kill, ability to search and influence. So we can compare how men and women are rated on these traits.

On average, male characters need to roll 2.8 or higher to kill a zombie, whereas women need to roll 3.3 or higher. However women are better at searching and need to roll 2.9 or higher to find something at a location compared with 3.5 for men. Men’s average influence is only slightly higher (40.7 v 39.0).

Research by the US Department of Justice showed that in 2008 men were 7 times more likely than women to commit murder (Source: US Dept of Justice), so although the male characters are better at killing zombies than the female ones, the difference in character traits in Dead of Winter is less than in current society. I have no official statistics about male and female searching ability, although a highly unrepresentative sample of my female friends suggested that men were extremely bad at being able to find things, so maybe Dead of Winter has also narrowed the gender gap from real life. Note that Sparky the dog is better than either men’s or women’s average killing or searching ability, although his influence is much lower. The bias of the game against cats clearly needs to be addressed.

Food Chain Magnate

img_1856Food Chain Magnate has 32 characters of which 9 are women and 23 are men a ratio of (2.6). You can hire base level employees and train them up to more powerful employees. If we score the base employees as 1 pt, and employees trained to the next level as 2 pts and so on we can also determine the average strength of male and female employees and we find that men have a higher average level than women (2.8 v 2.2).

Food Chain Magnate has a 1950s theme, so therefore it should probably be judged against equivalent data from the 1950s rather than against the modern day. In 1950 US labour force participation was 86.4% among men and 33.9% among women, a ratio of 2.5 (Source: Bureau of Labour Statistics). So Food Chain Magnate does accurately reflect the differential gender employment rates of the time in which it is set.

It is difficult to find statistics on the levels that women reached in the workforce in the 1950s although an article from Fortune published in 1956 estimated that there were around 250,000 “proper” executives in the US at the time, and that almost certainly no more than 5,000 of those were women (Source: Fortune Magazine). In that context Food Chain Magnate does seem to have given women employees more power than they actually had at the time as there are 2 top level male employees: CFO and Executive Vice President compared with 1 top level female, the HR Director.

Android NetRunner

img_1857I have the Core set, Genesis and Spin cycles and the 4 major expansion sets. There are 8 male and 8 female runners, but I don’t have any reliable metrics about the relative strengths of each runner.

Each card in a faction has an influence value if you want to use an out of faction card in your deck, and the higher the influence level, the stronger the card. In the analysis I counted only cards with named characters, and did not count cards like Inside Man or Woman in the Red Dress. The types of cards which had named characters were Assets and Upgrades for the Corps and Resources for the Runners. In total there were 12 male and 13 female characters with an average influence of 2.2 for males and 2.9 for females.

In contract to Food Chain Magnate, Android Netrunner is set in an indeterminate year of the dystopian future of the Android universe, so again there are no official statistics with which to compare the gender differences in the game, but it is interesting that as well as having equal numbers of male and female characters that the women are on average stronger.


driversAs a result of the feedback, I received from my friends, there are now 3 male and 3 female drivers with a variety of skin and hair colours (that’s a subject for another blog). There are no published figures for the gender breakdown of tube drivers, but 4% of train drivers in 2010 were female according to secondary analysis of the Labour Force Survey (Source: People1st).


In the majority games that I analysed, there was less gender bias in the game than there is in society as a whole (either now or in the past), and in one game (Android Netrunner) the female characters were on average stronger than men.

The only rider to this is that as I would like society to be more equal, am I more likely to have bought games which don’t perpetuate gender stereotypes, and therefore restricted my analysis to those types of games. I don’t think that I have, as for example I bought Android Netrunner because of the programming link and I probably expected the game to have more male than female characters because of the male bias in programming. Also have I downplayed the biases that are present in Dead of Winter and Food Chain Magnate and given them more credit for their positive elements because I really like playing those games. Regardless of my own possible biases, I still think that there is definitely evidence that some board games are definitely more progressive than society itself at this point in time.

While I personally believe that society should be more equal and that we should reduce the gender bias, I don’t feel that it is the responsibility of board game designers to feel that they have to minimise this bias. However, I am glad that there are games where women are seen as equal to men and that it is as likely for a strong character to be female as it is for them to be male, even when there are professions and roles which are still dominated by men in real life. I think for girls to play board games where there are strong female characters can only have a positive impact on their future career decisions and lives. We’ve come a long way from Mrs Bun the Baker’s Wife.

MetRum is available on Kickstarter until the end of November.


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